Are These Rebels Our Friends?


The 1 June bomb wasn’t large, but the explosion still smacked into the hotel lobby with a noise like a car crash up very close. A number of patrons rushed to the front door to see what was happening but security guards held them back. One young woman chatting with friends on the sofa adjacent to mine began crying quietly. There was scattered gunfire on the road outside, but it was random and unfocused, with no identifiable targets. Inside the lobby the mood was more nervous energy and curiosity than panic. What happens now, what do we do next?

The attack wasn’t really a surprise. The Tibesty is the biggest hotel in Benghazi City, which is the rebel’s de-facto headquarters in the east. It has a constant stream of rebel transitional government authorities, UN representatives and foreign diplomats through the door. I was in Benghazi as part of a month-long trip to Libya’s rebel-held areas.

The bomb was planted in the farthest corner of the hotel’s carpark, where it had burned four or five vehicles, but gone no further. Incredibly, no-one was killed or injured, and most of the wreckage was confined to a few metres. This was almost a symbolic bomb, the second since Benghazi rose against Gaddafi (two people were wounded in the first bomb in early May). But it was also a serious warning, one that everyone understood. Many people had spoken about loyalist Gaddafi "infiltrators" or "sleeper cells" in Benghazi; there were several reports and gossip of localised individual attacks, even though while I was there in May and June, the town felt pretty secure.

Ambulances arrived, and fire trucks to douse the flames. Young men gathered and soon there was a crowd, chanting and punching the air, several of them jumping up and down on the wrecked cars, condemning Gaddafi defiantly. "Libya al-Hurra!". Two teenagers, jumpy with excitement but trying hard to look serious, stopped me. "Will you tell the world about this? Are you a journalist?" "Er, sometimes," I told them. They solemnly shook my hand and ran into the crowd.

I wandered out to the front of the hotel where more and more people were gathering. They were angry and shouting but also young and energetic — eager to pitch in. Many had volunteered to help roll in the fire hoses, while others were scooping up mud and debris with their hands, cleaning up the streets.

"The youth made this revolution!" is a frequent, proud claim in Libya, and many of them are enthusiastic to keep on making it — after more than 40 years in which freedom of association and free speech was rigorously suppressed, Benghazi is now full of activity. Graffiti covers much of the streets, the rebel’s red-black and green flag (a resurrection of the first national flag adopted after independence from Italy in 1951) is everywhere. Young people volunteer as street-cleaners or collect donations for those displaced by fighting; they produce newspapers (around 60 at the last count), set up radio stations and form bands.

Rebel-held Libya does have that sense of exhilaration that can only come from rapid, popular change. But after a few weeks there I also felt a nagging uncertainty. The graffiti on the streets of Benghazi is all of Gaddafi — Gaddafi split by a rebel flag, Gaddafi bitten by a dog, Gaddafi under fire and running in panic. Gaddafi rugs are thrown on the floor in doorways so that people can stamp on pictures of his face. His speeches are mocked and subverted.

Eventually, it seemed to me that opposing Gaddafi was the single most defining feature of the revolution — but what was underneath? Who were the revolutionaries, and what were they fighting for?

At a superficial level the question sounds foolish. The young men chanting and jumping on the bombed-out cars are demanding to live without repression. The graffiti artists, the bands, the new media outlets, are joining in so that they can talk openly — something that was brutally denied for decades. The energy and demand for democracy, a vote, free speech, human rights, is emphatic and universal.

But a demand for democracy says little about the characteristics of the actual movement that’s making the demand. It doesn’t define a political or military project, which a revolution unavoidably is. "We are discovering ourselves. We’re finding out who we are," I was frequently told during my time in Libya. But important questions remain.

Gaddafi has warned of civil war if his regime is toppled, including between tribes — in response the rebels say they are part of "One Libya", which will overcome tribal divisions. But tribes are clearly important in Libya, and while Gaddafi’s dire warnings of civil war may never eventuate, tribal differences are significant. Gaddafi maintained control over diverse tribal elements by manipulating key groups — what role do these groups play in the revolution and how would a new regime negotiate these differences?

Gaddafi and his family have also claimed that if their regime falls, Libya will become a base for Islamic extremism, and went as far as naming the eastern town of Derna as a likely centre. The rebellion has dismissed this, and in Derna itself there is graffiti — in English, for visiting foreign journalists — rejecting accusations of extremism and calling for human rights. But religion is an enormous part of Libya’s culture and communities — how is this, too, a part of the revolution, and how does it differ both from Gaddafi’s idiosyncratic co-option of Islam?

The rebellion claims it is fighting for human rights and democracy, but if the regime topples, will those aligned with Gaddafi be treated fairly? Reports already indicate some serious violations by rebel forces, even if not on the same scale as the Gaddafi regime, and researchers informally indicate more could well come to light

Phrases like "One Libya" are strong slogans — but while the revolution’s identity remains unclear, they feel like substitutes for strategy, with real consequences. What, in the most crucial example, is going to happen in Tripoli? Repeatedly I was told that the rebel forces would move closer, put pressure on the regime, and the city’s population would rise up and overthrow Gaddafi’s centre of government. But that’s not a plan, it’s a hope. And it’s the same hope that was confidently stated in February, and in March, and in the months that followed. Even if this does come to pass, what will be the cost, in suffering and casualties, of this endgame? What will be the impact of that on the coherence and strength of the rebellion itself? And what happens if, month after month, Tripoli doesn’t in fact fall, and the rebels’ current gains feel the pressure from a loss of momentum even as casualties mount and hardships continue?

How does a movement, largely spontaneous and unstructured, emerging without a base of established — because it was prohibited and repressed — opposition, work all this out in the middle of fighting a war? It’s a big ask.

The rebels’ National Transitional Council and Executive Board, more or less the interim government, have released a statement on their future goals, and have occasionally voiced a sketchy timetable on how they aim to move forward. That’s admirable, and necessary — but with the conflict a long way from over, and future conditions uncertain, it’s more a statement of intent than a political program.

Of course, no war is ever simple or predictable — but the striking factor while I was in Benghazi was that there appeared to be little anxiety and little serious talk about these contingencies.

The NTC, and rebel fighters, have a tough job that involves many balancing acts. For example, the east has been under rebel control for several months now, consolidated since NATO bombs halted Gaddafi forces’ advance into Benghazi on March 17. Rebel-held territory needs governance, to maintain basic services, deal with international representatives, and provide political coherence. But if the NTC starts to look like an established government, without the participation of representatives from Tripoli or other regime-controlled areas, it risks an eventual backlash and political tensions with leaders of those communities. The longer the current stalemate continues, the more increased administrative consolidation will be needed just to keep the lights on in rebel areas; and the more acute this tension could become.

Yet the only resolution envisaged so far is that "Gaddafi will fall" and allow the NTC to expand and include representatives from across the country. NATO’s banking on the same thing. As the International Crisis Group pointed out, that’s little more than wishful thinking.

A couple of hours after the Tibesty bomb, chants rang down nearby streets: a group of over 100 young men walked in a spontaneous demonstration, carrying the rebel flag and shouting. People on the streets joined in. But beyond the symbolic, reactions seemed haphazard. Volunteer armed youth directed traffic, one waving our car through while shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade — of little practical use if there was a security incident unless one accepts widespread casualties among all nearby civilians.

Elsewhere another armed group stopped our car and for many minutes wouldn’t let us through, because my colleague who was driving came from another town and they didn’t trust him (he’d been displaced by the conflict, but how to prove that?). At the Ouzu Hotel where I stayed, jumpy armed guards refused to let our car in to park at all, and only allowed me to walk through after I showed my press pass — a simple printed card, with no photo or signature to confirm my actual identity.

Voluntary, energetic, but autonomous and largely untrained: Who do the various armed groups answer to? That’s perhaps the biggest worry, and it gives unanswered questions a sense of impending urgency: there are reportedly somewhere between 11 and 40 armed groups now in Benghazi alone, and few formal structures or protocols managing them.

So far, Benghazi City has remained remarkably safe. The energy and support for the revolution is strong and there’s a real sense of unity of purpose. But none of this can be taken for granted. With tenuous, transitional governance structures, a rebel force unsure of what it stands for, and only the barest sketch of a future political transition — the questions that remain unanswered are profound.

What happens next? No-one knows, including NATO and the transitional leaders themselves.


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